In soccer circles, playoffs get a bad rap. North American fans, in particular, look across the pond to Europe and see league titles decided mostly by straight-forward double-round-robins. The beauty of those titles is in their simplicity. Each team plays each other once at home and once on the road and the team that has the most points is declared champion.
Our own Zach Woosley, who somehow considers himself a Houston Dynamo fan, even made the case for bringing that format to MLS. I get where he's coming from, that the MLS Playoffs oftentimes fail to reward the best teams and oftentimes end up crowing a champion who had the fortune of simply not losing very badly.
The Dynamo, for instance, could conceivably win the MLS Cup with a 2-2-1 record in this year's playoffs. Real Salt Lake won the title in 2009 after claiming less than half the available points that season and failing to beat either of their final two playoff opponents in regulation. I'll readily admit that the MLS Playoffs fall well short of perfect.
But there was a line in his story that really got my ire: "Soccer doesn't need playoffs." That's a statement that just oozes with blatant Euro-snobbery.
Technically, he's right. Soccer doesn't need playoffs. By that same token, the NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball don't need playoffs, either. Everyone of those leagues play enough games that they could feasibly play every other team a relatively equal number of times. Yet, playoffs have and always will be a part of those leagues. Why? People love them and there's really no further explanation needed.
The other reason that line bugs me is that it insinuates that somehow soccer playoffs are an American invention, when that's simply not the case. The Belgian Pro League, to name one, uses a playoff system to determine their champion. Almost every country has a knockout style tournament to reward their domestic champion. Even in places like England, Spain and Germany, they use a playoff to determine which teams are promoted and relegated. Mexico uses a playoffs, as do many other Central American and South American leagues. The point here is that playoffs are almost as important in soccer as they are in any other sport.
The problem is not the playoffs, per se, it's how MLS is conducting them.
That 10 of 19 teams make the postseason is not necessarily a huge problem. More than half the teams in the NBA and NHL make the playoffs, for instance, and no one runs around claiming they crown illegitimate champions.
MLS's problem, I believe, is that regular-season performance is not properly rewarded. Just look at this year's results: Not a single team with supposed home-field advantage advanced from the conference semifinals or finals. One glaringly obviously explanation is that two-legged playoffs are not designed to really grant home-field advantage.
As much lip service as MLS paid to the idea of rewarding regular-season performance with the tweaks they made the last two years, they actually seem to have had the opposite effect. Having the bottom two qualifying teams from each conference play a knockout game was a good idea. But to then grant the winners of those teams a chance to immediately play a home match largely negates any disadvantage they have. It's got even more ridiculous when the league change the conference finals to two legs, meaning the two teams are squaring off on equal footing unless overtime is needed.
Unfortunately, it appears MLS is going to stick with this format for at least another year.
If they come to their senses and change it up, I have a few suggestions:
Regular-season record as first tiebreaker
This would be the easiest thing the league could do, although it wouldn't have had any effect on how this year played out. Basically, what I suggest doing is to borrow from Mexico and simply make the first tiebreaker regular-season point total. In the rare instance that two teams with identical point totals face off in the playoffs and are tied after 90 or 180 minutes, overtime could be used.
Admittedly, one of the driving forces behind the current playoff system is to ensure more teams get to play home games. This would run counter to that ethos, but if the goal is to crown a worthy champion, I think this would do the trick. Essentially, the higher-seeded team would host the first game. If the lower seed either wins or ties that game, a second game would be played at the lower seed's home. There might be fewer games being played, but the ones we did have would surely be more exciting. While lower seeds would no longer be guaranteed home games as they are now, they would at least have a chance to earn one.
Use the group-stage format
This would be by far the most dramatic change, but I think it would also be the most interesting one. This idea is a modified version of the one created by Brian Straus, who came up with this idea a couple years ago. Essentially, the first round of the playoffs would be turned into a group stage with four teams in each group. Each of the three group-stage games would be played at the home of the higher seed, meaning the top seed would get three home games, the second team two home games, the third seed one and the final seed would play all three on the road. The winners of each group would then host a one-game semifinal against the second-place finisher from the other group for a chance to meet in the final.
There are a couple tweaks I included that more closely follow the current format. The first would be maintaining the 10-team field. In my proposal, the Nos. 4 and 5 seeds from each conference would play one another in a one-game knockout prior to the group stage. I'm also suggesting that we keep the groups conference based and do away with the second leg in the semifinals. Finally, I'd suggest reverting to a pre-determined location for the MLS Cup as that would help mitigate weather concerns while also giving national media ample ability to coordinate.
I feel like this format would do a few things. First off, it would only add one game to any team's schedule over the current format. At the same time, we'd be treated to more playoff games that would directly impact teams that aren't playing in them. I believe that would increase interest in each game. Most importantly, it would also give a very real advantage to teams with better regular-season records.
I understand each of these formats has some drawbacks, but if the goal here is to increase excitement while preserving the value of the regular season, I believe any of these would be marked improvements over the status quo.